Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Illustrations and Authority

“These stories are neither history … nor empirical science. Instead, they are investigations into the structure of Being itself and calls to action within that Being. They have deep psychological significance.”

— Jordan Peterson

“There is no future for the Bible … where a literalist reading of the text is the only option.”

— Steve McSwain, The Huffington Post

You can find hundreds of such quotes about the Bible online these days, many of which, like the second one above, claim to be the product of a Christian worldview. All assure us the scripture is still good for something — faith production, psychological insight, good moral teaching — even if parts of it are historically false.

Most prefer to use the word “mythical” rather than “false”.

After all, they are not saying the writers of scripture are lying exactly. They are just telling us we need to understand their intentions were not to tell accurate history, but to communicate timeless truths in a non-literal way.

Timeless Truths in a Non-Literal Way

Analysts vary as to which portions of scripture ought to be considered mythical. The standard liberal Christian usually starts the “historical” portion of his Bible once Abraham makes an appearance, though he probably discreetly dumps Sodom and Gomorrah, Jonah, some of the “exaggerations” about the feats of David’s mighty men, Job’s Leviathan, Daniel and the lions, and so on along the way. The even-more-liberal Christian today views most of the miracles of Christ as somewhat suspect. Dump the resurrection and you’re not saved at all, but anything up to that, some people feel, is now an acceptable view of scripture for Christians. 58% of people who call themselves Christians in the US now take portions of the Bible illiterately ... sorry, I mean non-literally.

Short version: such a view of scripture doesn’t work. It can’t work. It has never worked. It is the last step down the stairs to agnosticism, and it is not even intellectually coherent. You can’t look carefully at the New Testament — or the Old, for that matter — and continue to hold it at all.

Did Jesus Believe in Adam and Eve?

Those of us who believe the Bible is historical from its first verses usually argue this way: Christ and the apostles quoted from or referred to passages about Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah, Sodom and Gomorrah, and so on. If they did so knowing these passages were not literally true, they were lying. If they didn’t know these passages were not literally true, then anything else they said or wrote is suspect. Either way, we lose the New Testament along with the bits of the Old we weren’t comfortable with.

That argument isn’t clear enough for some people. For example, Thaddeus writes:

“It has been said that Matthew 19:4-6 indicates Jesus believed in an original Adam and Eve. I don’t reach this conclusion at all. Can somebody help explain why people read it this way?”

Now, I totally understand what Thaddeus is saying here, and it’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t use Matthew 19:4-6 to make my point. In that case, the Lord starts with “Have you not read?” So he’s affirming the authority of Genesis and the accuracy of the spiritual point its writer was making. But at no point does he explicitly insist on a literal Adam and Eve. He’s quoting God’s statement after the fact, rather than appealing to the history itself as authoritative, and does not mention either Adam or Eve by name. We can see how a non-literal example could conceivably be used that way. It would be something like making reference to the Gwen Stacy death issue of the Spider-Man comic book as an example of classic tragedy. It’s not the best example. It’s not the most literal example. But it makes the point, sort of. When I first read it around age twelve, it defined tragedy for me. So a myth or story can still be illustrative even if it isn’t literally true, and the Lord Jesus need be neither lying nor mistaken to use it in this admittedly less-effective way.

Making the Argument More Persuasively

So let’s leave that one aside. There are plenty of other places where the New Testament cites the Old that make the argument much more persuasively. A myth or story can certainly be illustrative, but it cannot be authoritative, neither can it be particularly encouraging or comforting. For example:

  • If the men of Nineveh did not repent at the preaching of Jonah because the book of Jonah is a myth, they can’t exactly “rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it”, can they? Anyone who said they will would have to be either lying or mistaken. Now who was it who said that again?
  • If it is not literally true that God “brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly” or turned “the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes”, then we are not much comforted by Peter’s conclusion that “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.” That assertion still remains to be demonstrated in the real world, doesn’t it.
  • Again, if the ark did not bring eight persons safely through water, as Peter insists, it can hardly serve as a useful illustration of baptism.
  • If as in Adam all do not die because Adam never existed, why should we believe that in Christ all shall be made alive? Likewise, if Adam was not formed first, then Eve, then there is no basis for Paul to tell Timothy how women ought to conduct themselves in church meetings. The first is definitely more critical to our salvation, but both passages present the same problem.
  • If sin did not come into the world through one man, and death did not actually reign from Adam to Moses, Christ need not have died at all.
  • If Abel did not offer to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain because both never existed, on what basis was his faith a model for ours? And if he did, why would we doubt the literal existence of his parents?
  • If Enoch was not taken up so that he would not see death because he is a myth, how is it that we know that without faith it is impossible to please God?
  • If by faith the ancients did not stop the mouths of lions (Daniel) or quench the power of fire (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego), why would we believe they conquered kingdoms, enforced justice or were made strong out of weakness? How is mythical faith a model for our own? Where is its power to instruct us or its ability to encourage us?

A Scripture That Doesn’t Obligate

Myths can illustrate, but they do not have authority. They cannot be theologically persuasive. They cannot bind us or obligate us to anything. If the men and women of old did not do the things Christ and the apostles claim they did, we may as well get our moral instruction from Aesop’s fables, from literary fiction or famous movie scenes. Those stories are equally compelling, perhaps more so.

So then, it is not merely the fact that Christ and his apostles made passing reference to Adam, Eve, Noah, Jonah or Daniel that makes the argument for a literal reading. It is the way they spoke about them that is persuasive. They spoke about them as if they believed they actually existed, and that the things they did are moral lessons for moderns. They spoke about them as if they were people like us, struggling with the same temptations and moral issues that we are, taking the same risks and in line for the same rewards.

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